*People who are not computer geeks or who usually utilize their computers only to send e-mail messages might not know what VoIP means.
It's an acronym that stands for Voice Over IP (Internet protocol). Put simply, it's technology that allows people to send their voice over an Internet connection. It's not a new idea, actually, but there is a company that has taken a step further with surprising results.
One day last year, a friend of mine asked me to talk over the Internet. I thought we would utilize the means we were used to -- text messages or chat rooms -- but he proposed a new program: Skype. I hadn't ever heard of it, so, fueled by curiosity, I downloaded it.
The program is available for several operating systems including Linux, and it takes more or less for granted that users have a broadband connection. After one year of heavy tests, I think I have got the reason why millions of people use it every day: an amazing quality of sound.
In technological terms, Skype represents a step ahead compared with .............
............ older systems, because it has developed a well-known file transfer concept -- peer-to-peer, or P2P -- and applied it to Internet telephony. This program allows people to speak with each other all over the world with a voice quality often better than an actual phone.
The first time I used it, I was stunned by the clear and pure sound I could hear. It was as if the other person were in the same room. The cost of the chat? Zero, nil, nothing. If users don't have a microphone and speakers, they can rely on the text chat feature.
Though some security and privacy concerns have been raised, due to the fact that communications can be routed via the peer network, the program comes encrypted with a powerful algorithm -- called AES or Rijndael -- in order to prevent potential eavesdropping.
By the time I have finished writing these words, a total of more than 114 million people will have downloaded the program and several companies will have implemented it to exchange vocal and text messages among their employees and keep in touch with customers.
Thirty-nine million people use this free software to make Internet-based calls worldwide at no cost, calling other Skype users, while 1.4 million are now using the paid service to call people outside the Skype system; for example, mobile phones or landlines. (Source: Reuters)
People who need more sophisticated services can rely on the answering machine and the recently added SkypeIn. With this service non-Skype users can dial a local phone number in several countries -- such as the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and the United States -- and reach Skype users anywhere in the world paying just a local fare.
The software is not without bugs, like every project under constant development. The company itself warns that the software is not yet fully compatible with some kinds of firewall software, while users interacting on the Skype forum complain about echo problems and occasional difficulties to make themselves heard by their interlocutors.
The masterminds behind this revolution are two Europeans, Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, founders of KaZaA, the world's most popular P2P Internet software, well known by people who share files over the Internet. Their company, founded in 2003, is based in Luxembourg but it also has offices in London and Estonia.
The idea they have been developing has turned out to be a winning choice, if only we consider the companies supporting Skype -- Motorola, Packard Bell, Daum, Siemens, just to name some of the most famous -- and the number of prestigious awards Skype has received so far, including the Future UK Internet Award for Best Use of the Internet in Business, the 2005 Webby Award for the company's Web site and the 2004 World Technology Award for Communications Technology.
Zennstrom recently told Reuters that the company has been attracting 150,000 new clients every day without any need for advertising. He also said Skype would not need more funding after a $19 million cash injection in January 2004, which brought its total fund raising to $24 million. The company also expects to be cash-flow positive this year.